Travel | BACKSTREET STORIES

Exploring Jiyugaoka's venerable shopping arcade

by Kit Nagamura

Contributing Writer

Winter winds whistle as I exit Jiyugaoka Station in Tokyo’s Meguro Ward, surrounded by a flock of boisterous high school students in black uniforms. Their joyous chatter as we walk into brilliant sunshine at the station’s main exit reminds me that the station and area was named in 1930 for a nearby high school, Jiyugaoka Gakuen.

Jiyugaoka Gakuen was an early example of the Taisho Jiyu Kyoiku Undo (Taisho Free Education Movement), a new form of education in Japan that changed from authoritarian classrooms to student-centered learning, initiated in the Taisho Era (1912-26). The Japanese characters for Jiyugaoka, which literally mean “freedom hill,” were chosen to fit the school’s philosophy. However much they may apply to the area today, Jiyugaoka was not the station’s original name.

In 1927, when the brand-new Toyoko Line tracks were first laid through the agricultural fields in southern Meguro, the station was dubbed Kuhonbutsu-mae, to honor nearby Kuhonbutsu Joshinji temple. The only problem, I learn through a brief telephone chat with Meguro Ward Office historian Naomi Saito, was that the Oimachi Line, built soon after, included a stop directly in front of the temple.

“People realized the Oimachi Line station should bear the temple’s name, so they had to come up with something different for the Toyoko Line’s stop,” Saito says. “By 1929, they settled on the school name, which matched other Toyoko Line stops, such as Gakugei-daigaku and Toritsu-daigaku, both named after local universities.”

I’m set to explore Jiyugaoka, known for its cobblestone back alleys, cake shops and pseudo-European vibe, but don’t get far before my attention is caught by a retro-style sign over a covered arcade. Jiyugaoka Department Store looks like no department store I’ve ever seen, but there’s something inviting about the tunnel of shops and it’s a chance to get out of the wind.

Takayoshi Igarashi and his wife, Takami, pose for a photo with household items from their shop, Igarashi Kanamonoten.
Takayoshi Igarashi and his wife, Takami, pose for a photo with household items from their shop, Igarashi Kanamonoten. | KIT NAGAMURA

At the arcade entrance, among kettles, kitchenware, light bulbs and wine glasses, I meet 57-year-old Takayoshi Igarashi and his wife, Takami, inside their shop, Igarashi Kanamonoten. Striking up a conversation with the warm couple turns out a fortuitous move, because the Igarashis’ shop has been located in the arcade for more than 60 years. “We opened here on Dec. 12, 1953 — only eight years after the war,” Takayoshi says. “The area was razed by bombing and there was nothing here, so the department store’s three-story arcade was a big deal.”

I do the math and realize that Takayoshi must be the second generation in the family to run the store. Takayoshi immediately corrects my assumption. “I’m a husband from away,” he says, explaining that he came from Hokkaido to Tokyo as a student, married Takami and assumed her family name. He has done the family proud, it seems, since he now heads the board of directors for Jiyugaoka Department Store.

I peruse Igarashi’s stock of household necessities and wonder aloud how business is. “We did really well before the arrival of supermarkets and 100-yen shops,” Takami says, “but nowadays, even though we sell hard-to-find quality goods, we barely scrape by.”

For a family business to survive 66 years in Tokyo implies business savvy, so I ask the Igarashis what it is that has kept Jiyugaoka Department Store viable for so many decades.

“It’s communication,” Takami says. “We talk to other shop owners and customers here. I can tell you where all my products come from and explain how to use each in detail. It’s community.”

When customers pop in, the Igarashis rush to tend them, so I wave thanks and zigzag down the narrow arcade. One of my first stops is at Tsukudani Nakajima’s, a shop with tidy shelves of tsukudani (bits of food preserved by boiling in soy and mirin). I’ve caught third-generation purveyor Tsukasa Nakajima, 55, at a busy time, but I admire his glistening, golden wakasagi (Japanese pond smelt) tsukudani that would sit pretty on a bowl of warm rice. A small crowd of like-minded grannies nudges me aside and snaps up half of Nakajima’s smelt stock.

A doll dressed in Native American clothing sits in a hosiery shop called Indian in the arcade.
A doll dressed in Native American clothing sits in a hosiery shop called Indian in the arcade. | KIT NAGAMURA

My next stop is at shop Indian. The store name perplexes me until I note various dolls in Native American clothing and hairstyles appearing here and there among the store displays of fancy brand handkerchiefs, stockings and socks. No, wait … I’m still perplexed.

Indian’s owner, 78-year-old Yoshitaka Ito, peeks around the corner to explain. “This was my dad’s shop and 65 years ago, when he opened, his friend said why don’t you name it ‘Indian’? In those days, nylon stockings were brand new, unfamiliar items and Indians were also foreign, see?” I have to admit I don’t, quite. “Well,” Ito says, giving it another shot, “the word has only a few letters, so it’s simple. Alas, some people from India mistake the meaning. That’s why I put an Indian chief sticker on the shop door so people don’t make a mistake.” I grin politely and pretend to take notes.

I can barely fit inside the close confines of Indian with Ito, but we tete-a-tete on the difficulties of maintaining a quality hosiery shop in the days of cheap socks. When a regular customer (the secret to Indian’s success) enters the store to check out the pantyhose display, the Indian powwow proves too tight. Thanking Ito, I continue down the arcade.

I pass a variety of shops targeting the silver set: jewelry, green tea and stretch tunics. The other popular commodity, it turns out, is traditional Japanese kimono.

I stop in at recently refurbished Kimono Iwako to ask a few questions. A shop clerk guides me up to the department store’s third floor, where in a tiny storage room, among boxes of kimono I find Iwako’s stylishly-dressed sub-manager, Yasunobu Yamazaki, 65.

A handmade kimono at Iwako in Jiyugaoka Department Store.
A handmade kimono at Iwako in Jiyugaoka Department Store. | KIT NAGAMURA

“What sets us apart is our reasonable prices of brand and artisan-made, one-of-a-kind kimono,” he says. “Unlike most kimono dealers, we actually buy the kimono we plan to sell. Most places simply borrow kimono, returning those that don’t sell. We purchase ours outright, so the risk is much higher, but we have utter confidence in our choices.”

Yamazaki credits Jiyugaoka’s numerous kitsuke (kimono-wearing) schools and relatively affluent residents with Iwako’s success. Yamazaki’s computer screen is blinking, so I thank him for his time, and head downstairs again to check out a sample of Oshima tsumugi (thin silk pongee), which Yamazaki taps as his favorite kimono material.

“It’s the jeans of kimono, strong and appropriate for everyday wearing,” he says. The fabric features intricate, age-old patterns, but appears ready to withstand a lot of wear, much like Jiyugaoka Department Store itself, I muse, and move on.

Fairy Tale owner Jun Sato
Fairy Tale owner Jun Sato | KIT NAGAMURA

I nearly pass by the eye-panic that is Fairy Tale, an accessory shop with 15 years of history and more bling factor than a Kanye West necklace. However, owner Jun Sato, 62, gives me a charming head tilt, so I enter Fairy Tale’s maze of boxes, where every inch is packed with costume jewelry, decoupage items, beaded rings and Swarovski crystal concoctions.

“We’ve got approximately 100 designers who rent these box spaces to sell their creations,” Sato says.

Does he have a favorite piece? “Hey, I’m not a woman so, no,” he responds indignantly, “but these sashiko towels are nice.” I check out the charming hand-quilted works and buy a few. This seems like a happy ending to Fairy Tale, so I push on.

The day is waning, but I decide to dash through the basement shops of the department store. I put the brakes on when I spy an antique ice box and curved glass counter groaning under piles of bundt pans, cookie cutters, boxes of baking soda and bags of chocolate chips. At baking goods shop Okuraya, I find owner Shinichiro Okura, 76, busy at a small desk, working out the day’s newspaper page of puzzles. There’s a transfixed timelessness to the tableau, as though these same products have occupied these same shelves for the 65 years Okuraya has been in business.

Big bake-off: Shinichiro Okura, owner of a baking goods shop in the arcade called Okura-ya, poses for a photo.
Big bake-off: Shinichiro Okura, owner of a baking goods shop in the arcade called Okura-ya, poses for a photo. | KIT NAGAMURA

“People don’t much make their own baked goods anymore,” Okura admits, matter-of-factly. “I’d like people to remember the joy of creating their own treats.”

Out of respect for his wish, I purchase a gingerbread man cookie cutter and resolve to start the new year on a sweet note.